December 4, 2021

Matthias Maurer talks science and spacewalks on the space station


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EDITOR’S NOTE: The launch of SpaceX’s Crew-3 mission was delayed to Nov. 10.

Matthias Maurer’s last name in German means brick layer. Naturally, Maurer says, that means he has been assigned to perform an experiment with concrete during his six-month stint on the International Space Station.

Maurer, 51, is preparing to launch on SpaceX’s next crew mission to the space station. The European Space Agency astronaut is set to head into orbit for the first time.

The mission will make Maurer the 600th person to fly into space since the dawn of the Space Age. He’s eager to start on his science mission on the space station, where he will operate facilities inside the European Columbus lab module and support research in other segments of the outpost.

Born in the German state of Saarland, Maurer earned degrees in materials technology and materials science. He received a doctorate in materials science engineering from the Technical University of Aachen, Germany, and has a master’s degree in economics for engineers from the Open University in Hagen, Germany.

While completing his studies, Maurer researched high-temperature metals and served as a paramedic. He worked four years for an international medical company, researching new materials for disposable medical equipment, such as blood filters used in dialysis.

In a pre-flight interview with Spaceflight Now, Maurer said his education and research experience have prepared him for work on the space station.

“Some of these topics are actually the research areas that we have on the International Space Station,” he said. “We have a lot of materials science on the space station. We have several furnaces, but we also work in the domain of life sciences. That’s why I think I bring a lot of expert knowledge to run a lot of these experiments that have on the space station.”

Maurer will launch on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endurance spacecraft on NASA’s Crew-3 mission. NASA astronaut Raja Chari commands the flight. Pilot Tom Marshburn and NASA mission specialist Kayla Barron will also be on-board for the six-month expedition on the space station.

Launch is scheduled for 2:21 a.m. EDT (0621 GMT) Sunday from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

European Space Agency astronaut Matthias Maurer during training at SpaceX. Credit: SpaceX

Maurer’s crewmates describe him as inventive and innovative. He applied to join ESA’s astronaut class of 2009 and passed all tests to join the group, but he did not make the final cut.

Instead, he joined ESA as a crew support engineer at the European Astronaut Center in Cologne, Germany. He participated in an ESA-led cave expedition in 2014, and officially joined ESA’s astronaut corps in 2015.

Before his assignment to the Crew-3 mission, Maurer was part of the first group of foreign astronauts to join a Chinese astronaut training program in 2017. He also took language lessons in Chinese.

After waiting more than a decade since he first applied to be an ESA astronaut, Maurer is days away from finally rocketing into orbit. A world-class science lab awaits him more than 250 miles (400 kilometers) above Earth.

“I like the metals, and melting metals,” Maurer said. “We have the electromagnetic levitating furnace in the European module, where we can heat up metal samples, have them floating — -so no contact with any boundaries where we could have artifacts — and we can heat them up, see the viscosity, measure all the different parameters, and then cool them.

“And all these parameters we only can gain in zero gravity, and then we can feed it into computer simulations which are applicable for applications on the ground when you for example want to produce a new car engine, or the turbine blade for a jet engine on a plane,” Maurer said.

He said the materials science research program on the space station has been “highly successful” with solid demand from investigators to send their experiments to the orbiting lab.

There are also biological experiments probing how the human body changes in microgravity, including the eyes.

“One of the devices that we’re flying now is taking video images of the eye, and applying artificial intelligence for the image analysis,” Maurer said. “Ground testing has proven that with such a quite simple setup, like an iPhone, for example, and a lens that we put on there and the right software, you can achieve almost better results than a specialist …  can do just by looking into your eye.”

Similar technology could be applied to help patients on the ground that don’t have easy access to an eye clinic.

This diagram shows the location of the Nauka laboratory module and the European Robotic Arm at the International Space Station. Credit: ESA

“In German, my last name Maurer means brick layer,” Maurer said. “As a brick layer, you should do something with construction, so I will have an experiment with concrete. We will mix some cement on the space station and see how it hardens.”

Concrete is one of the most common ingredients in construction, but scientists still have questions about how it hardens over time, particularly in the absence of gravity or in a low-gravity environment. A future base on the moon or Mars might use concrete, so scientists want to know how it behaves in space.

“It actually contributes a lot of science,” Maurer said.

Maurer is certified to go outside the space station on spacewalks in either U.S. spacesuits — called Extravehicular Mobility Units — or Russian Orlan spacesuits.

If the crew’s schedule remains unchanged, Maurer will go outside the station in an Orlan spacesuit with a Russian cosmonaut early next year. The duo will activate the European Robotic Arm positioned outside Russia’s Nauka laboratory module, which arrived at the station in July.

“We need to remove the transport fixture and install video cameras, which were not installed during the transport,” Maurer said.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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